To get to President Asif Ali Zardari’s presidential palace in the heart of Islamabad for dinner is like running an obstacle course. Pakistan’s once sleepy capital, full of restaurant-going bureaucrats and diplomats, is now littered with concrete barriers, blast walls, checkpoints, armed police, and soldiers; as a result of recent suicide bombings the city now resembles Baghdad or Kabul. At the first checkpoint, two miles from the palace, they have my name and my car’s license number. There are seven more checkpoints to negotiate along the way.
Apart from traveling to the airport by helicopter to take trips abroad, the President stays inside the palace; he fears threats to his life by the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda, who in December 2007 killed his wife, the charismatic Benazir Bhutto, then perhaps the country’s only genuine national leader. Zardari’s isolation has only added to his growing unpopularity, his indecisiveness, and the public feeling that he is out of touch. Even as most Pakistanis have concluded that the Taliban now pose the greatest threat to the Pakistani state since its cre- ation, the president, the prime minister, and the army chief have, until recently, been in a state of denial of reality.
“We are not a failed state yet but we may become one in ten years if we don’t receive international support to combat the Taliban threat,” Zardari indignantly says, pointing out that in contrast to the more than $11 billion former president Pervez Musharraf received from the US in the years after the September 11 attacks, his own administration has received only between “$10 and $15 million,” despite all the new American promises of aid. He objects to the charge that his government has no plan to counter the Taliban-led insurgency that since the middle of April has spread to within sixty miles of the capital. “We have many plans including dealing with the 18,000 madrasas”—i.e., the Muslim religious schools—“that are brainwashing our youth, but we have no money to arm the police or fund development, give jobs or revive the economy. What are we supposed to do?” Zardari’s complaints are true, but he does acknowledge that additional foreign money would have to be linked to a plan of action, which does not exist.
The sense of unrealism is widespread. As the Taliban stormed south from their mountain bases near the Afghan border in northern Pakistan in late April, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told the parliament that they posed no threat and there was nothing to worry about. Interior Minister Rehman Malik talked about how the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai was supporting the Taliban and how India and Russia were sowing more unrest in Pakistan. Meanwhile, the inscrutable, chain-smoking army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, remained silent. By the time Kiyani made his first statement on the advance of the Taliban, on April 24, the army was being widely and loudly…
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